Nobody Knows


“In America, ‘crunchy’ is a compliment,” said Quentin Crisp, lamenting the quality of supermarket bread in the United States (he approvingly likened the consistency of British sliced bread to that of a flannel), the only thing he didn’t like about his chosen homeland.

American paperbacks are crunchier than British ones. I bought a second-hand copy of Richard Hughes’ The Fox in the Attic, and took it to Paris where I was reading it but then I accidentally left it behind. And then I found a copy in the bargain rack at Mercer Street Books, so naturally I picked it up. Distracted by other goodies, such as Mark Harris’ majestic Hollywood history Five Came Back, I laid it aside when home, and Fiona started in on it ahead of me. And the thing began to crumble in her hands, flaking to bits as she feverishly consumed it. “I feel like Rod Taylor in THE TIME MACHINE,” she complained. My copy of Hughes’ sequel, The Wooden Shepherdess, is a British imprint, and it’s appropriately loose and flannelish like a slice of bread from Tesco.

Same thing with another Mercer Street bargain, Gore Vidal’s Hollywood, which I’d been meaning to read for ages, even though the only other volume I’ve read in his history series is Lincoln (which I liked a lot. Richard Lester told me, “Gore Vidal kept trying to sell me the books of his I didn’t want to film, like Myra Breckinridge. I wanted to do Lincoln.”). And on the way home the cover of the book SNAPPED into jigsaw pieces, something I have never encountered before.

Fifteen pages in and it’s GREAT — Vidal has William Randolph Hearst sit in a chair which collapses under him, and then has him anticipate William Goldman’s famous dictum by seventy-odd years —

“But I don’t know anything about the movies.”

“Nobody does. That’s what’s so wonderful.”

I did at first fault Vidal’s prose when he wrote “Like a trumpet, she blew her nose into a large handkerchief,” since the comparison of nose-blowing and trumpetry is a banal one, and he seems to be saying that trumpets regularly, literally blow their noses into large handkerchiefs. But, on reflection, I came to admire the phrase, since it put into my mind the image of a trumpet blowing its nose, and one can’t help but be grateful for such an image.

But my favourite bit so far is the Washington psychic lady ~

“Why did you come to Washington?”

“Fate.” said Madame Marcia, as though speaking of an old and trusted friend. “I was associated with Gipsy Oliver at Coney Island. Mostly for amusement’s sake. But”–Madame’s voice became low and thrilling–“she had gifts as well–worldliness. Dark gifts. Amongst them, the gift of prophecy. I was, I thought, happily married. With two beautiful children. My husband, Dr. Champrey, had an excellent practice, specialising in the lower lumbar region and, of course, the entireĀ renal system. But the spirits spoke to Gipsy Oliver. She spoke to me. Beware of the turkey, she said one day. I thought she was joking. I laughed–more fool I! What turkey? I asked. I know turkeys, and don’t much care to eat them–so dry, always, unless you have the knack of basting, which fate has denied me. Well, lo! and behold the next month, November it was, I was preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for my loved ones, when Dr. Champrey said, ‘I’ll go buy us a turkey.’ I remember now a shiver came over me. A chill, like a ghost’s hand upon me.”

Jess shivered in the stuffy room. This was the real thing, all right. No doubt of that.

“I said, ‘Horace, I’m not partial to turkey, as you know. Just a boiled chicken will do.'” She exhaled. Jess inhaled and smelled boiled chicken, old sandalwood. “‘Why not splurge?’ he said. Then he was gone. He never,” Madame Marcia’s bloodshot eyes glared at Jess, “came back.”

“Killed?” […]

“Who knows? The son-of-a-bitch,” she added, suddenly soulful.

32 Responses to “Nobody Knows”

  1. Eugene was a total delight. Did you ever get a chance to meet him? I saw him frequently at Los Angeles Times Book Fair events and interviewed him at length for the Writer’s Guild Magazine. There’s a new documentary coming out about his contretemps with William F. Buckley Jr. (“the Marie Antoinette of the Republican Party” Eugene called him — for more reason than one cha cha-cha.)

  2. I finished it last year. Great book! God, how I miss Gore Vidal!

  3. Never met him, alas. I always liked his appearance of being wisely amused by everything.

  4. I write about him all the time. In fact, just yesterday. . .

  5. An axiom of the twentieth century, and twenty-first, Gore Vidal has to do a walk-on in every biography or it just isn’t a complete life…

  6. Vidal was good. No dope. Funny how his opposite number, Bill Buckley, always seemed to be interviewing Black Panthers and gay anarchists — in a sense, Buckley did more to advance the cause of Hard Left politics than Vidal did.

  7. Well leave us not forget, Daniel, Buckley founded “The National Review” with a deeply closeted gay man — who shortly before his passing came out at last.

  8. And Buckley himself always seemed closeted to me.

  9. His fights with Vidal looked like a protracted lovers’ quarrel.

  10. Daniel, Buckley was a closet queen. And Vidal, needless to say, knows it. Watch the way he baits him in ’68. Of course there were other issues too namely anti-Semitism. When Vidal said “Remember Sharon,” Buckley went ballistic because he was making explicit reference to the attack Buckley and his pals made on the home of a prominent gentile who went against “restrictive covenant laws” in Sharon Connecticut.

  11. A writer friend who was an ex-hustler told me that Buckley’s bizarre sexual fetishes were the talk of the rent boy world. He used to get vials of blood and drip them over the hustler’s naked bodies while jerking off.

  12. Again, David E. You were fortunate to have met him so many times. I’ve read his historical fiction and all his critical essays. They are real fascinating and so insightful. Back in 1965, i remember him on UK TV as a panel on one of those satire shows making the remark, “Nixon could strangle Pat on American TV and viewers would deny it ever happened.”

  13. And once again the Republicans seem to have entrenched positions invulnerable to reality.

    A very elderly Gore, in the last doc I saw about him, watched Obama’s election victory and declared the Republican party over for the foreseeable future. I do rather hope he was right, but then how can you have a democracy with only one party?

    Meanwhile UK politics seems like it might fragment into a half-dozen mini-parties, some of which are a little scary.

  14. Eugene said many times that there WAS only one party: “The Property Party. And it has two right-wings”

  15. He told me just before the election that if Obama won he’d be sure to be assassinated because the very idea of a black president is anathema to The Powers That Be. Well there have been no end of threats and no end of attempts, but Obama is still standing.

    I don’t know how he puts up with having shit thrown in his face 24/7.
    He’s made of sterner stuff than the rest of us.

  16. Chomsky has also made that argument (and I believe he was first) — “one Business Party, two factions.” Of course, the entire political spectrum continues to walk rightward (with the avid support of the Democratic Party Faithful). When I was a kid, Buckley was the Devil, while a few Dems were taking legit Liberal stands, though nothing to get excited about. Nowadays, there are virtually no Liberals in the Party, thanks to Bill Clinton and the DLC, which turned the Dems into conservative technocrats, folks like Obama and HRC. Vidal was an important voice, but my family stood to his political Left back in the 60s and 70s. Liberals largely supported the illegal invasion of Vietnam, though a few *principled* Libs were there to say no.

  17. Today, Buckley would be a moderate.

  18. And Vidal would be considered “radically” Left. Sad.

  19. Nixon stood to Obama’s Left on economics. People tend to forget Nixon’s “We’re all Keynesians now” — something Obama cannot say. So looking back at Vidal is like looking at a completely different world — the nomenclature is so fraught that comparisons become all but impossible. “Left” and “Right” are meaningless.

  20. Those terms have always been shifty, dependent on time and place. I guess as an anarchist you’re “politically non-Euclidean”?

  21. True (about the shiftiness) but here in the US there’s a truly perverse tendency to pervert historical meaning — the fact that “Libertarian” means tyranny is bizarre. Used to mean the opposite.

  22. The right have managed to make scare terms of every word that isn’t “conservative” — first “communist,” then “socialist” then “liberal.” To the point where you have states coded by colour because none of the descriptive terms are acceptable. The so-called left should retaliate by painting “traditionalist” and “conservative” and especially “libertarian” as the blackest villainies.

  23. Chomsky fights back by calling himself a “conservative.” He’s a “conservative” anarchist in the sense that he wants the US to live by simple, traditional values (its own professed values in fact) — fairness, common decency and so on.

  24. I like 400 Blows, but Godard is just infinitely greater than T. And even if Clement is being a bit unfair, I’d say he’s not essentially wrong. I’m still trying to come to grips with GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE after seeing it twice — I’ve never witnessed anyone take cine-philosophy and cine-poetry and coil them together as gorgeously as Godard has. Well, except for Epstein… Anyhow, I’m not sure I’ve seen Clement’s work. Where do I start?

  25. Sorry, stuck this on the wrong thread!

  26. John Seal Says:

    As one who has spent many years in both the UK and the US, I can attest to the general flimsiness of American mass market paperbacks. They’re too tightly bound and fall apart easily. British paperbacks are much more durable. (And don’t get me started on crappy American chocolate.)

  27. I was just speculating as to whether the air-conditioning in America dries the books out and makes them brittle…

  28. John Seal Says:

    In Berkeley/Oakland/SF, it rarely gets hot. Virtually no one has air conditioning here…and the damn books still fall to pieces!

  29. Our cat, drawn by the vanilla pong of decomposing literature, started rubbing her face all over the Vidal book, and succeeded in snapping part of the back cover off with her fang. So, it’s just shoddy workmanship, then.

  30. And when I spent some years in Hawaii (from whence came my husband) my collection of UK paperbacks was shipped over and – I’m thinking particularly of my copy of Runyon’s Broadway stories – somehow split themselves apart in the Polynesian climate. It was an extraordinary sensation, taking a volume off the shelf and feeling it surrender in my hands, as if determined to abandon material shape.

    I miss Vidal dreadfully, although I think he did get a little wobbly over the McVeigh connection. And I recall him, cantankerous and frail, talking on a BBC link to Dimbleby the night Obama won. Frustrated in extremis he finally barked at Dimbleby “I don’t know who you are!” and that was that.

    I lived above Mulholland for a while and was dismayed to learn, too late, that Vidal’s house (on Outpost) was a few moment’s walk from my place, in fact I drove past it every day. Had I known, I would have dropped by occasionally to borrow an egg. Or a cup of milk.

    It’s been wonderful to re-read him, which I’ve been doing lately. I have through the years acquired just about his entire output except the novel he disowned – In A Yellow Wood. But my god, the essays continue prescient, pertinent, and gorgeously written. And I’m currently being surprised by just how fine The Judgment of Paris is.

  31. I really ought to get around to some of his non-historical works. I found that Myra B was not for me, oddly enough. I love his essays.

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